"I've come a long way from picking cotton in the fields with my grandfather," said retired Master Sgt. Leroy Mazell Smith, who has lived a life few could probably imagine.
He was born on an Arkansas bridge during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927; son of a logger and farmer, Smith grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. His mother, who cared for him and his two siblings, left school at the age of 13.
He credits his upbringing to his grandfather who Smith picked cotton with. He said his grandfather taught him the value of hard work and perseverance.
Retired Master Sgt. Leroy Smith became a Tuskegee Airman at the age of 16 in 1943. Smith said getting to know the Tuskegee aircrew was one of his best memories. | U.S. Air Force image by Staff. Sgt. Regina Edwards
Smith graduated from high school in Fordyce, Arkansas, at the age of 16. While there, he attended preflight aeronautical classes, changing the course of his future.
"I wanted to be a doctor," he said, "but the military said they needed black mechanics, so I was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps at 16. Looking back now, they did me a favor I'd say."
Smith said he vividly remembered being a scared boy from the country in 1943, riding a bus from Camp Robinson to Sheppard Field, Texas, for basic military training, and then later to Chinook, Arkansas, for aircraft and engine training.
"Everything was segregated," he said. "The ride to training, the barracks we lived in, even the hours we had to shop at the base exchange and eat at the mess hall were separate.
"I remember (white) people asking us, 'What are you doing here?' and assuming we blacks were the cooks and bottle washers," Smith said.
However, segregation did not break his zeal. Smith charged forward and met every obstacle with faith and optimism. He said he leaned on his Baptist upbringing and grandfather's lessons about having strength -- especially during the harder days.
"I never retaliated," Smith said. "I just believed those people were ignorant and someday it would be better. My grandfather always said, 'There's only one race of people: the human race.'"
Tuskegee Airman in an undated photo. | U.S. Air Force
And so, while the human race was focused on World War II and which side would prevail, Smith set course for the European theater. He was assigned to the Tuskegee unit, where all barriers fell away. He was no longer a black mechanic. He was simply an Airman.
"I was scared and proud when I arrived in Italy," Smith said. "I was with an all-black crew that I could identify with. I could actually communicate with the pilots; the officers respected us as the younger members. I didn't have to just do my job and shut my mouth. We all had a good relationship; it was one of my best memories."
The Tuskegee Airmen are typically known as an all-black fighter and bomber pilot aircrew who fought in WWII. However, that name, Tuskegee Airmen, also encompassed navigators, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel for the aircrews.
"I loved being called a Tuskegee Airman," he said. "I didn't know that name would be what it is today, but we sure had a lot of unit pride, and there was reason for it."
The crew was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group and flew heavy bomber escort missions with P-47 Thunderbolts and later the P-51 Mustangs. To distinguish themselves, they painted the tails of their aircraft red, coining themselves the Red Tails.
"We never lost a bomber," Smith said. "Nope, we never lost a plane. It did me proud to say I was a part of this. We were good, and we were finally recognized for it. I'm a low profile guy, but the recognition was nice."
In 1947, Smith's tour with the Tuskegee Airmen ended, but the Red Tails' legend influenced the integration of races in the armed forces. Smith soldiered on as he transitioned from the Army Air Corps to the Air Force.
He continued serving throughout the Korean War and Vietnam War, fulfilling 25 years in the Air Force and retiring in 1968 as a master sergeant.